Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed
In memoriam – Tennyson
This is a story about outrage in the media. It starts with Rick Santelli, the on-air editor for CNBC’s business news, whose outrage would become the stuff of tea party legend. And it finishes with Alessio Rastani, an otherwise unknown “trader,” recently invited to share his thoughts with the BBC, whose stark admission to the profit-motive stumped his interviewer and outraged the lookers-on.
Where Santelli clothed his remarks in morality, Rastani appeared unconcerned with right and wrong – only profit and loss. They may appear worlds apart, but they were in fact two sides of the same view – one that defines competition as the organizing principle of society and markets.
The patchwork shirts of pit-traders stitched a motley curtain for the day’s commentary. Cameras hung high above the floor, so they could track Rick Santelli as he wandered among the terminals and traders, surveying the activity – the Jane Goodall of the market.
But the 2008 broadcast would entail no bon mots of highs and lows or price trends. No, it would seemingly launch a movement and give voice to the brimming anger of a silent majority.
Rick Santelli’s broadcast from the floor of the CME invoked populist outrage at the prospect of bailing out bad mortgages. He questioned why President Obama would want to reward the people who “drink the water” over those who “carry the water.” Marshalling the metaphor of economic incentives, he organized a stark moral judgment: “The government is promoting bad behavior!” and “subsidizing the losers’ mortgages.” Losers be damned; this was truth telling.
Santelli’s outrage would merge with the origin-myth of the tea party. Either by coincidence or design, he said, “we’re thinking about having a Chicago tea party in July…we’re going to dump derivative securities.” Tea Parties sprang up around America and repeated variations on Santelli’s rant: “This is America!. How many of you people want to pay for your neighbors’ mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?… President Obama, are you listening?”
Santelli voiced a moral view and offered a visible subscription to its consequences. Personal responsibility provides no room for bailouts — regardless of the pain. It was brutal, but optimistic in its own way. It was based a moral standard Santelli attributed to society – how he expected people to behave and hoped people would.
More recently, a “trader” named Alessio Rastani outlined a grim sense of how the world works in 2011. He ducked the standard discussion of macro risks, government bailouts and market sentiment for the fugitive cant of the truth-teller, transported from his soap-box to live television. Unlike Santelli, however, he provided no ideals to which one might subscribe – only the mercenary pragmatism of a “trader” out to make buck.
The BBC was not ready for Rastani. Every night, as he lies in bed, he “dreams about another recession.” He’s been “dreaming of this moment for three years.” Rastani then revealed to the gaping interviewer, “The governments don’t rule the world. Goldman Sachs rules the world. Goldman Sachs does not care about this rescue package, neither does [sic] the big funds.”
Twitter came alive with commentary. Had the BBC been tricked? Was this the work of the YES Men? Some people may have always assumed these things, others might speculate on them, but no one spoke openly of them – no one, save Rastani. Rastani refused to play along. The Independent dubbed him “the trader who lifted the lid on what the City really thinks.” Spanish Finance Minister Elena Salgado labeled him amoral. Investigations as to his qualifications and circumstances were launched.
But Santelli and Rastini aren’t so different.
Yes, Santelli makes a moral appeal. He imparts a sense that this, this financial crisis, should not have happened, mixed with an urgent desire to punish those who were complicit. To a nation in shock, it seems only natural to respond with denial and anger – to appeal to a lost sense of responsibility, to get angry. After all, embedded in Santelli’s brutal judgment was a hope that people would behave better, they would live up to his ideals, and it would not happen again.
But Santelli’s moral clarity does not seek to protect those who are less fortunate. He’s not upset for the grandmothers, the working families whose retirement accounts and livelihoods have been decimated. No, it protects the organizing principle of the market – the brutal mechanism by which it corrects our excesses and rewards the canny operator. The market, red in tooth and claw, will sort the winners from the losers, those who carry the water from those who drink the water, and nothing should stand in the way.
Rastani may play the amoral cad, concerned only with the craven and mercenary calculation of returns. We may be tempted to dismiss his clownish performance as some publicity stunt. But there’s a streak of honesty in him. He plays the game. He doesn’t ask for moral cover, but he has it. And he can count on Santelli to receive it, be his attack dog, fend back the losers.